It’s a privilege to live in an age with so many challenges to the conventional wisdom. But somehow I think that doing away with good and evil is going a wee bit too far.
Writing in the New York Times, Howard Gardner proposes a revision of all of traditional morality. Even for a Harvard professor with 28 honorary doctorates with his name on lists of the world’s top 100 intellectuals, this seems ambitious. Here is a peek at his plan:
“tenable views of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ that arose in the last few centuries are being radically challenged, most notably by the societal shifts spurred by digital media. If we are to have actions and solutions adequate to our era, we will need to create and experiment with fresh approaches to identifying the right course of action. Let’s start with the Ten Commandments…”
If you want to put Moses out to pasture, you need a pretty robust substitute. After all, the Ten Commandments have worked well for four thousand years. What does Mr Gardner propose? A wiki-morality (breath easy: that’s wiki, not wicked): a bunch of smart guys connected by Twitter who “reflect on ethical conundra of our era”. He calls these “virtual agoras”, after the Greek plaza where the men of Athens used to debate state policy. They will tell us what right and wrong are, presumably through Facebook posts.
Does anyone out there except the editors of the New York Times not think that this is dumb beyond belief? I know that someone out there is going to rebuke me for not critically engaging with Mr Gardner’s thoughtful proposal. In my defence I will cite George Orwell: “One has to belong to the intelligentsia to believe things like that: no ordinary man could be such a fool.”
You may have guessed that the theme of this issue is that very dumb ideas are sometimes held by very smart people. In her critique of Hanna Rosin’s book The End of Men, Carolyn Moynihan points out that if masculinity and femininity both disappear, both men and women become ciphers.
Next, Clive Hamilton, one of Australia’s rare public intellectuals, asks why the philosopher Peter Singer gets awards and an up-and-coming politician gets the sack for saying the same thing.
Matt Hanley, a public health expert from the US, argues that a risk reduction ethic for AIDS only aims to sanitise and thereby perpetuate hazardous behaviour. And finally, I have discovered another attempt to rewrite morality in the New England Journal of Medicine.